'I love facts': Pointless co-host Richard Osman is quizzed on his unlikely rise to geeky, gawky fame

Richard Osman worked quietly away in TV for years before his role as co-host of Pointless thrust him into the spotlight. The six-foot-seven quizmaster talks to Simon O'Hagan about absent fathers, his posh friend 'Xander' Armstrong, and why knowing lots of facts doesn't make you clever.

Richard Osman's grandfather was a police officer – a man who knew how to calculate risk. "He always said," Osman tells me, "that if you were called to a fight in a pub, make sure you are second through the door. I've realised that there is an awful lot of truth in that. The first through the door gets the living crap beaten out of him. The second one gets a run at it."

The first through the door that Osman has in mind is his friend Alexander Armstrong – "Xander" to him – in his role as host of the BBC quiz show Pointless. The second man through is Osman himself – Armstrong's sidekick. Between them they have turned Pointless into a bit of a phenomenon. Beloved of all ages and demographics, the show is threatening Countdown's pre-eminence as the essence of good-natured, brain-teasing early-evening escapism. Students love it. Retirees love it. Quiz fiends love it. Everyone loves it.

Nominally the junior partner, safe behind his laptop as Armstrong schmoozes the guests and asks the questions, the geeky, gawky Osman is suddenly a star in his own right. Looking like he might have stepped out of an Austin Powers movie, he's emerged as a mischievous foil, a master of deadpan, a fount of grade-A trivia, and an unlikely heart-throb. Osman – all 6ft 7in of him – is having a moment, and much as he says "I like being a No 2", there's no more hiding away.

I meet Osman in the west London offices of Endemol, the production company behind Pointless, where he is creative director and a veteran of game-show production. At 42, he is acquiring TV fame quite late in life, for the simple reason that as a committed behind-the-scenes man, he never went looking for it. What happened was that when Endemol pitched Pointless to the BBC, Osman played the part of the host's assistant – standard industry practice at such an early stage of a programme's development – and was taken aback when, in accepting the show, the BBC said they wanted him to carry on in the role.

"I'd never done stand-up comedy, any acting, any performing," Osman says. "I'd never done anything in front of a camera. I was very happy getting up in front of a room of TV people and doing a run-through because I feel that's my job as a producer, but to actually do it for real, that felt like a Rubicon which one's not supposed to cross. But when they asked, I said yes of course."

Pointless has changed his life. Osman was Heat magazine's "Weird Crush of 2011". He's guested on Have I Got News For You. He's soon to make his debut on QI, whose producer John Lloyd told me he thought Osman was funnier than Armstrong. He gets recognised when he goes along to watch his beloved Fulham. In terms of public profile, he's always had to defer to his older brother Mat, who plays bass in the band Suede. Now it's less a case of Richard the brother of Mat than Mat the brother of Richard.

Osman has always been fascinated by TV. He was obsessed with it as a child, and it's been his career his entire adult life. You can sense that when you watch him. But to those who think of him as posh – perhaps because of his association with so noblesse oblige a figure as Armstrong – the truth about his background might surprise people. "I come from a big proper working-class family," Osman declares.

That family is from Sussex, and the policeman grandfather is important because Osman's own father walked out when he and Mat were quite young. "I didn't see him for about 20 years. I've seen him since and he watches the show and that's nice. I hold no grudge against him, but we just aren't very close."

Osman's mother was a primary-school teacher so the importance of learning was instilled in him and his brother from the outset. "She had a curiosity about the world." She also insisted on him "speaking properly". In the absence of a father, Osman's grandfather played a big part in his upbringing. "He was around a lot. I think like most boys, if you don't have a father, you convince yourself that you don't need one, but you probably do. You ascribe certain qualities to certain other men f who are around. If I think of what it means to be a man, I would think of my grandfather. He was very tough but very gentle, very kind, loving, thoughtful and generous. Those are all the things I would like to be as a man."

His grandfather also provided the quizzing gene. "He and my mum would sit down and watch Countdown. He'd always have a crossword in his hand. There are a lot of really quite bright people in my family, but we just didn't get much of an opportunity to go on to anything."

Perhaps the difference with Osman was that he made his own opportunities. When he was a teenager and Radio Brighton wanted young volunteers to help make a music show called Turn It Up, he was straight in there interviewing bands. From his comprehensive school he won a place at Cambridge to read Social and Political Science ("It's about the easiest degree you can get away with"), and while he was a student he wrote for the NME.

Was Osman conscious of a class divide at Cambridge? "No, not at all. When I went I thought, this is going to be awful and everyone's going to be posh and I'm going to feel left out. I had the world's biggest chip on my shoulder but it disappeared instantly. There were actually a lot of state-school kids there, and I found that the people who had gone to public school were incredibly bright and thoughtful and all-round nice people, which is why they ended up where they did."

One of those answering that description was Armstrong, although it would be many years before the two of them really got to know each other. "We moved in different circles. At Cambridge we knew each other to say hello to. But when I left and went into telly and he went into comedy, we would occasionally bump into each other. Every 18 months or so we would meet at something and say, hey we should work together, and we got firmer and firmer friends. When this opportunity came along, it seemed like serendipity."

Osman started out as a researcher for a small production company. "I assumed I would be a writer. I wanted to be a sportswriter, that's the job I really wanted to do, but then I stumbled into television and it occurred to me within a week that this was obviously the job I should do. I never knew it existed as a job, I didn't know anyone who had gone into it. The second I got through the door, I thought, here we go, I'm home, this is lovely."

Osman soon moved to Hat Trick where he spent five years before joining Endemol 13 years ago – hired to think up programme formats. "With quiz shows, which can be quite complicated, with all sorts of different mechanics, getting everything working together is much harder than it looks. Occasionally I've had a show that's come to me from start to finish in one go, but Pointless was a really long process, and very collaborative." The basic idea – contestants answering questions previously given to 100 people, and being rewarded for choosing answers thought of by the fewest of those surveyed – had its roots in a Channel 4 show that Osman worked on called Beat the Nation. The big breakthrough was the show's title, but Osman claims no credit for it. "That was the creative team."

With Osman finding himself as the assistant the next task was casting a host. "When the guys here suggested maybe Xander should be the host, and the commissioning editors discovered that we had been at university together, I think they thought, right – it sounds like a good story." One of the great game-show double acts was up and running. "The fun of the thing is what people haven't said on the list," Osman says. "For the host to go through everything is a bit unyielding so it's the perfect show to push it over to someone and ask, what else could they have said. Suddenly you've got that relationship and you can put some comedy into it. It's very organic that process."

Osman loves that the show is so popular with older viewers, including of course his mother. "That's when you know you're doing your job properly. Because you can't fool older viewers, they'll switch off in a heartbeat. I hope it's a nice show. Xander and I love meeting people and that's the fun of it – you've got all these lovely questions but also you meet new people every day and you have such fun with them. And hopefully that comes across, and everyone's enjoying themselves."

Like all quiz shows, Pointless has witnessed some spectacular displays of ignorance, and I wondered what Osman – who can register surprise but who never sneers – felt he had learnt about the great British quizzing public. "Genuinely anyone who comes on that show, I think, fair play to you; it must be really hard to stand up there. Some of the people are physically shaking because it's scary, and often the ones who are shaking the most of all are the best quizzers, because they are the ones with the most to lose. But when politics comes up, it's extraordinary – the lack of knowledge from the contestants and of the 100 people that we've asked. Mention any Cabinet minister and the name recognition is absolutely tiny. We spend so much time in this country slagging off politicians, and I don't mind that, but just as long as people can actually name one."

Osman offers an explanation for this. "People are much more inward-looking these days, not so interested in the world. I am a fact person. I love facts, so I am biased. It's not about cleverness. Some of the cleverest people I know could not do a pub quiz, but if you have a problem in life, they'll fix it for you. We are encouraged to read books about ourselves aren't we? How our brain and mind works, our places in the scheme of things. We are less encouraged to read books about, say, the Tudors."

So is he political? "I am not party-politically engaged, but I certainly care about things. I just find earnestness very difficult. It's the earnest people who get things done, and it's the non-earnest people like me who sit on the sidelines. I could do with an extra spoonful of earnestness."

It's clear that Osman is having a great time, but there are regrets in his life. He has an ex-wife and two children – a girl of 14 and a boy of 12 – but he insists that no pattern is being repeated. "My dad left and we just didn't see him, and that was deemed OK. But that's just not how people split up any more. I spend so much time with the kids; not as much as I'd like of course but I try my hardest and I think we have a close and loving relationship." His children live with their mother in Cambridge and Osman lives on his own in west London. "I am single and available. You can put that in bold at the top of this!"

What about his relationship with his brother? Was he ever jealous of him? "People have asked me that but honestly the question has never occurred to me. I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather be a successful musician than my brother. I couldn't be prouder. What an amazing achievement. You know what, he's just a really nice man, and given the music business, that's an achievement in itself." And is he proud of you? "I would hope so. He's proud that I'm doing this thing that I enjoy, and when I go and do things like Have I Got News For You, he'll come along and watch."

Second through the door again. It definitely works for Richard Osman.

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